Tag Archives: art

Absence Makes the Heart

September 10, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“Where are you from?” 

This common question is a complex one for Los Angeles-based conceptual artist and summer 2018 Bemis artist-in-residence Jenny Yurshansky. She was conceived in Moldova in the late-1970s, when it was part of the USSR; while her refugee parents were en route to the United States, she was unexpectedly born in Rome. The family ultimately settled in the San Fernando Valley in 1979. 

“I was technically stateless when I was born,” says Yurshansky, whose Jewish parents experienced systemic oppression before fleeing Soviet-era Moldova under great duress. In punitive acts by the Soviet regime as it worked to expel hundreds of thousands of Jews, they were forced to abandon their jobs for a year and surrender all educational documentation before leaving. Yurshansky’s surprise, early arrival in Rome caused an additional delay of a few months while her parents worked to assemble the proper paperwork for the family to complete its journey to the U.S.

But Yurshansky’s story is just one small stitch in a larger, intergenerational family fabric of borders, fear, fleeing, and absence. From her grandmother’s escape from the Nazis to her parents’ decision to leave their hostile homeland, the family’s ongoing diaspora deeply affected not just the individuals who had to leave, but the places they left behind.     

“There are two pockets of emptiness: One in the group that leaves—because as traumatic or difficult as their relationship with home may be, it’s still where they formed their identity and the core of who they are—and also in the place that’s left behind,” says Yurshansky of the refugee experience.     

Yurshansky’s past work explores the topic of immigration as it relates to the way we think about human migrants using the allegory of invasive plants species. During her Bemis residency, Yurshansky focused on her Crusted Memory project—a more personal exploration of immigration that looks at her family’s legacy as migrants from a matrilineal perspective. 

“Instead of dealing with migration on a general level like I did with the plants, I’m looking at my own family’s history as being a refugee story,” Yurshansky says. “It’s a case study that can be used to reflect on the refugee experience, not solely on a diaristic level, but also as a way to reflect one story onto other stories and experiences. I’m looking at the state of being a refugee, in terms of traumas experienced by the people who leave and also by the place that’s left behind.” 

As a conceptual artist, Yurshansky uses many mediums. Crusted Memory incorporates textiles, glass, sculpture, photography, and other elements to explore a family legacy she says is rooted with her maternal grandmother. Her grandmother was a highly skilled seamstress whose budding career was interrupted by World War II when, instead of heading to Paris for an apprenticeship as planned, she fled Moldova for Uzbekistan, narrowly escaping with her life. 

Fittingly, it was Yurshansky’s grandmother who taught her how to sew as a child during a visit to the U.S. Yurshansky calls sewing her “initial place of creative output” as an artist. “Since my mother’s mother is the root of the story, a lot of the work [in Crusted Memory] will focus on weaving or embroidery,” says Yurshansky.

In 2016 and again in 2017, Yurshansky and her mother traveled to Chișinău, Moldova’s capital city and her mother’s hometown. 

“Neither of my parents had been back because [it] was too traumatic,” she says. 

On their journeys, Yurshansky collected notes, artifacts, photographs, and conversations which inform the works in Crusted Memory. One piece—an embroidered, soft sculpture—draws from a visit to Yurshansky’s great-grandfather’s overgrown gravesite, where she did a rubbing of the towering headstone that mimics a limbless tree, symbolizing a life cut short. Another poignant piece is based around traditional rose-patterned Moldovan rugs.    

“At the house I grew up in, my mother planted 116 rose bushes,” Yurshansky says. “When we went to Moldova, I saw roses everywhere—from fabric patterns to medians—and something clicked. I said, ‘Mom, now it makes so much sense to me why you planted roses at home and had so many around—you were basically replicating home.’ But she said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. There were no roses there.’ For her, a lot of memory is suppressed, and that’s what I mean about these kinds of gaps, both in the person that leaves and the place that’s left behind. So, I’m recreating this carpet, but with the roses dropped out. A lot of my work deals with absence and plays with that tension of what’s there and what’s not there through how I’m presenting these objects.”

Yurshansky feels fortunate to have the resources provided during her Bemis residency to tackle this important project. “I’m really lucky to have this much room to play in and such an amazing set of resources,” says Yurshansky, who welded at Bemis’ Okada Sculpture & Ceramics Facility and did ceramics at The Union for Contemporary Art in addition to the multifaceted work she completed in her studio. “Being a conceptual artist, I start with the idea first and then find the materials, methods, and techniques that best express that idea, and Bemis is really wonderful because there are so many resources available to me and the people are so helpful. That has been invaluable to my work.”

While Yurshansky had never been to Omaha before, she’d been aware of the Bemis for a long time. 

“I had no idea what to expect from Omaha and I’m very pleasantly surprised,” she says. “There’s a lot going on and it’s really hip. There’s great food, concerts, the culture is awesome, the museums are great, and the people are just amazing.”

In addition to her summer in Omaha, Yurshansky has been exposed to many other locales, having also lived in Sweden for 11 years and traveled widely, which greatly informs her global perspective. Though she acknowledges the heightened current conversation around immigration, she says it’s actually long been a been a major issue.

“It just continues to escalate,” Yurshansky says. “I think that’s a reflection of our world as it becomes more undeniable that the idea of a border is actually an arbitrary thing, considering what a globalized society we are in terms of policy, economics, and how much, especially in the U.S., we have a hand elsewhere in the world.” 

Just as each thread is crucially connected in the tapestry of our globalized world, Yurshansky’s work showcases the poignant interconnectedness of people, places, and empty spaces—the places that made us who we are, those that make us who we will become, and the empty spaces we create along our journeys. 


For more information, visit jennyyurshansky.com.

This article was printed in the September/October 2018 edition of Encounter. 

September/October 2018 Art & Museum Exhibits

Art & Museum Exhibits

Jevon Woods
Through Sept. 7 at Love’s Jazz & Arts Center 2510 N. 24th St. Woods’ work captures the essence of social and historical figures and explores the intricacies of Afrocentric everyday life. Admission: $10 adults, $7 students and seniors (ages 55+), $5 children ages 6-12, free for children age 5 and under. 402-502-5291.
ljac.org

Treasures of British Art 1400-2000: The Berger Collection
Through Sept. 9 at Joslyn Art Museum, 2200 Dodge St. Take a look at 50 masterworks from one of the most private collections of British painting in the U.S. Tickets: $10 general public ($5 4-8 p.m. Thursdays), $5 college students, free for Joslyn members and ages 17 and younger. 402-342-3300.
joslyn.org

Sheila Pepe: Hot Mess Formalism
Through Sept. 15 at Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, 724 S. 12th St. This exhibit examines how Pepe often plays with feminist and craft traditions to counter patriarchal notions of art. Admission: free. 402-341-7130.
bemiscenter.org

Kristine Allphin: Taking Root
Through Sept. 16 at Lauritzen Gardens, 100 Bancroft St. This exhibit celebrates batik, an ancient decorative art used to embellish textiles, and the various forms of beauty found in the natural world. Admission: $10 adults, $5 children ages 6-12, free for children under 6 and members. 402-346-4002.
lauritzengardens.org

Betni Kalk
Through Sept. 21 at Fred Simon Gallery, 1004 Farnam St. View the works of Kalk, a Creighton University design instructor inspired by the natural world. Admission: free. 402-595-2122.
artscouncil.nebraska.gov

Reality
Through Sept. 26 at KANEKO, 1111 Jones St. This exhibit investigates art, science, and technology that creates, alters, and reflects upon the sense of what’s real. Admission: free. 402-341-3800.
thekaneko.org

Museum of Nebraska Art Traveling Exhibition
Sept. 7-Oct. 28 at Gallery 1516, 1516 Leavenworth St. Come see the works of artists from across the state at MONA’s traveling exhibition. MONA was developed in 1976 to create an art collective that celebrates Nebraska’s unique artistic heritage. Admission: free. 402-305-1510.
gallery1516.org

Thomas D. Mangelsen: A Life in the Wild
Sept. 1 through Jan. 6, 2019 at Durham Museum, 801 S. 10th St. The Durham Museum hosts the world premiere of 40 of this acclaimed nature photographer’s works. Admission: $11 adults, $8 seniors (62+), $7 children (3-12), free for children under 2 and members. 402-444-5071.
durhammuseum.org

Dottie Seymour, Virginia Ocken, Glenda Musilek, and Judy Greff
Sept. 7-30 at the Artists’ Cooperative Gallery, 405 S. 11th St. Discover the paintings by these featured artists, which range from watercolor to acrylic, with subjects from horses to abstract images. Admission: free. 402-342-9617.
artistscoopomaha.com

Watie White and Brent Houzenga
Sept. 7-Oct. 26 at Petshop Gallery, 2725 N. 62nd St. Take part in the notable printmaking and portraiture of White and Houzenga at the gallery in Benson’s Petshop. Admission: free. 402-203-5488.
facebook.com/bensonpetshop

James Bockelman
Sept. 14-Oct. 5 at Project Project, 1818 Vinton St. This exhibit showcases James Bockelman’s modern works. Bockelman is an art professor at Concordia University. Admission: free. 402-680-6737.
projectprojectomaha.com


Sept. 14-Oct. 12 at Lied Art Gallery, 2500 California Plaza. Take in new oil paint and watercolor pieces by Creighton professor Thein. Admission: free. 402-280-2509.
johnthein.com

John Thein, Sept. 14-Oct. 12

Todd McCollister and Katie Temple
Starting Sept. 28-Nov. 23 at Fred Simon Gallery, 1004 Farnam St. View McCollister’s long-grain furniture and woodwork and Temple’s architecture-inspired art. Admission: free. 402-595-2122.
artscouncil.nebraska.gov

Kay Chapman: Wearable Art
Oct. 2-4 at Anderson O’Brien Art, 1108 Jackson St. Chapman uses natural fibers such as silk, cotton, linen, and wool to create clothing that is subtle and bold. See her work and understand the inspirations behind her designs. Admission: free. 402-884-0911.
aobfineart.com

Cindy Mathiason, Elisa Benn, and Courtney Christiansen
Oct. 5 at the Artists’ Cooperative Gallery, 405 S. 11th St. Enjoy artwork by three featured artists during the month of October, with pieces ranging from oil and charcoal portraits to nature photography. Admission: free. 402-342-9617.
artistscoopomaha.com

Northwest Missouri State Faculty Invitational
Oct. 5-Nov. 9 at Osborne Family Gallery in Criss Library, 6401 University Dr. N. Take in the works of a shared art community from Northwest Missouri State University. Admission: free. 402-554-2796.
unomaha.edu

Joe Pankowski
Oct. 5-Nov. 30 at Petshop Gallery, 2725 N. 62nd St. This University of Nebraska-Omaha alum brings his sketches—turned paintings, films, gadgets, and more—to the local gallery. Admission: free. 402-203-5488.
facebook.com/bensonpetshop 

Fall Chrysanthemum Show
Oct. 6-Nov. 16 at Lauritzen Gardens, 100 Bancroft St. Discover a fascinating fabrication of flowers. Bold mums combine with vibrant and diverse colors, textures, and fabrics representative of Japanese culture. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission: $10 adults, $5 children (6-12), free for children under 6 and members. 402-346-4002. 
lauritzengardens.org

Japanese Ambience Festival
Oct. 6-7 at Lauritzen Gardens, 100 Bancroft St. Participate in cultural events and celebrate Omaha’s special relationship with Japan. Hosted by the Omaha Sister Cities Association, the event will include a wide range of activities like Japanese calligraphy, origami, food tastings, martial arts demonstrations, and more. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission: Most activities included with regular admission, $10 adults, $5 children (6-12), free for children under 6 and members. 402-346-4002.
lauritzengardens.org

Pattern and Purpose: American Quilts from the Shelburne Museum
Oct. 6 through Jan. 6, 2019, at Joslyn Art Museum, 2200 Dodge St. View 35 quilt designs by traditional and contemporary makers inspired by everything from nature to geometric patterns. Tickets: $10 general public, $5 college students, free for Joslyn members and ages 17 and younger. 402-342-3300.
joslyn.org

Sarah Hummel Jones
Starting Oct. 12 at Project Project, 1818 Vinton St. Sarah Hummel Jones is an interdisciplinary artist who works with a variety of materials and teaches students across the nation. Admission: free. 402-680-6737.
projectprojectomaha.com


Starting Oct. 13 at El Museo Latino, 4701 S. 25th St. Celebrate the Mexican tradition of Day of the Dead by viewing an exhibit and memorial ofrenda. Admission: $5 general admission, $4 college students with ID, $3.50 students K-12 and senior citizens (55+), free for members, active military with ID, and children under 5. 402-731-1137.
elmuseolatino.org

Benefit Art Auction Exhibition
Oct. 13-26 at Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, 724 S. 12th St. This annual exhibition will feature more than 300 works from local, regional, and national artists. All proceeds will benefit artists and raise funds for Bemis Center programs. 402-341-7130.
bemiscenter.org

Super Sports: Building Strength, Sportsmanship, and Smarts
Starting Oct. 13 at Omaha Children’s Museum, 500 S. 20th St. This special exhibit is a hands-on exploration of sports, with skill-building experiences through play. Admission: $13 children and adults, $12 seniors (age 60+), free for children 2 and younger and members. 402-342-6164.
ocm.org


Event times and details may change.
Check with venue or event organizer to confirm.

This calendar was printed in the September/October 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Painting New Worlds

August 21, 2018 by
Photography by Keith Binder

Can you get to know an artist through their Instagram posts? Scroll through Keegan Baker’s portfolio, and you will flip past years’ worth of fantasy portraits, life drawing sketches, and miniature paintings, eventually coming across side-by-side self-portraits of the current artist versus himself five years ago. 

The man in each portrait peers stoically at the viewer, painter’s apron hung around his neck. But the Keegan on the right looks strikingly realistic, as if he could be sitting across from you discussing his progress in craft and future creative plans. Keegan’s catalog of work is full of surprises spanning a variety of mediums. Upon meeting him in person, he reveals that his most intriguing work has yet to be seen.

Keegan’s current obsession is a created place called Tarmia. This is where he lets his new work live and breathe within a true fantasy world. Keegan says, “It has a really grand story of corruption. I built this mythology around gods and deities. Tarmia is this made-up fictional world where I want real, everyday things to transgress—with a crazy overarching theme going on.” The paintings for this series are based on ordinary things and people that Keegan uses for reference. Then they are immersed in a dark, Hidetaka Miyazaki-inspired world. 

Keegan has been hashing out Tarmia’s storyline—by means of classical architecture research, costuming, symbolism placement, and character studies—for the past year. The logistics behind the art are mapped out in an extensive Google Doc. “Now everything I make is in reference to Tarmia,” Keegan says.

He began his journey on the road to Tarmia while receiving his degree at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he studied art. “I was looking at friends and people to use as reference material for bigger compositions,” he says. “I was trying to think about narrative and telling my own story.” 

These depictions of friends riding animals, with added embellishments such as swords and mink furs, show how Keegan got to the imaginary world of Tarmia. “I like the creative challenge of using what’s around.” Family members or friends placed in this fantasy world create a juxtaposition of reality against fiction. The result showcases the artist’s otherworldly homage to manga but also displays his tact for planning and craft.

Recently, Keegan has shown a series of horror-inspired miniature portraits at the 402 Arts Collective in Benson, where he works as a teacher. These dark creatures and faces are presented on tiny canvases between the size of a quarter and a packet of hot sauce. While small, the figures could easily work themselves into the larger scenes of what Tarmia may look like. 

Keegan is interested in utilizing oil paints as well as digital media to create his new world. “It’s hard for me to stick to one thing. I like the broad spectrum of art,” Keegan says. 

Regardless of the style, he pushes himself to continually sharpen his skills, whether in more labor-intensive oil painting or through the “immediate gratification” of rendering a digital sketch. This toil can be seen in Keegan’s blend of polished portraits and character sketches. Through his work as a teacher, he has been inspired to revisit anatomy drawing and perspective study. He says, “It has been the most refreshing thing since college, for just actually vibing ideas off of someone.”

Despite his self-proclaimed “nerdy background” and early obsession with Neon Genesis Evangelion, Keegan reveals a love of classic material. He says he is drawing from classic works such as “Romans during the Decadence” and the portrait paintings of Hans Holbein for a succession of Tarmia paintings. Where these two styles meet is an intriguing, necessary place for Keegan to be. “Telling a story with a single piece is what I’ve been really chasing,” Keegan says. In melding these influences, he hopes to finally capture his quarry.


For more information, visit instagram.com/keeganbakerart.

This article was printed in the September/October 2018 edition of Encounter. 

Ugly Yellow and Violet Vividity

August 8, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It all started with a knee injury. In 2006, things for the now-24-year-old Jenna Johnson came to a screeching halt when the soccer enthusiast was subjected to multiple surgeries to repair her ACL. While she healed, the Sioux City, Iowa, native discovered her passion for painting. 

“It was the making of something from nothing that grabbed me,” she explains. 

In 2001, Johnson and her family moved to Elkhorn for a job opportunity. She says that, although she received a quality education and played a multitude of sports, she always felt like something was missing.  

“It was exactly what you’d imagine it to be like,” Johnson says. “I had numerous friends. I felt safe, but in a way I also felt boxed in, possibly due to the lack of diversity.” 

When Johnson graduated from Elkhorn South High School in 2012, the self-taught artist moved east and got a studio at Hot Shops downtown, a goal she’d had since she was a teenager. 

“I participated in a high school show that is held there once a year,” she explains. “During our tour, I’d get lost in the building and imagine what it would be like to be an artist there. Now that I have been a resident for almost six years, Hot Shops has given me much wisdom about the art community. With the knowledge of my fellow artists, I’ve gained the skills necessary to keep my business going.” 

Over the years, those fellow artists have taught her how to build and stretch a canvas, and explain, sell, and critique her work. She’s also learned imperative lessons about success and failure, so it’s not surprising Johnson’s current focus is people, done in an unconventional mustardy yellow and shades of violet.  

She initially chose that shade of yellow because she wanted to make an ugly painting to “get it out of her system.” But once she saw it next to the violet, her imagination exploded. The result was a new experience for her.

“People are my favorite right now,” she says. “I hate painting faces, but I love how the two colors simplify the subject. I am infatuated with these two colored portraits [in particular]. All [of them] are large so it is fun to step up to one and stare into the subject’s soul.”

“Ask me this again in a year, I’m sure it will change,” she adds. 

Although she has other hobbies like traveling, hiking, and yoga, Johnson can’t picture her life without working as an artist. 

“I ask myself this question at least once a week and the answer is always the same—I don’t know,” she says. “Maybe cut hair? It terrifies me to imagine doing anything but painting.”

Johnson’s permanent installations can be found throughout Omaha at businesses such as TD Ameritrade (commissioned while she was still in high school) and LinkedIn. Living paycheck to paycheck, she appreciates each and every time someone buys her work. 

“It feels wonderful,” she says. “Since this is my only job, any sale is a good sale.” 

Down the line, Johnson envisions her art breaking out of the Omaha scene, but she insists, “If I am still happily painting in the future, I have succeeded.” 


Visit jennajart.com for more information about the artist. 

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Encounter. 

FamilyGuide Cover Redesign

March 16, 2018 by
Illustration by Mady Besch, Matt Wieczorek, and Bill Sitzmann

The cover of the 2018 FamilyGuide summer camp edition was conceptualized as an image that would grab the attention of both parents and children using vibrant colors and a singular theme.

This being summer camp, I used geometric shapes in the composition: circles for the sun; triangles for trees; and an intricate campfire scene with a tent, fire, and traditional summer camp sign with arrows pointing to the articles within. 

I first created the cover in Adobe Illustrator as a digital mock-up to size, and from there selected different felt materials for the actual shapes to cut out. Thanks to our art director, Matt Wieczorek, and photograper, Bill Sitzmann, we were able to exaggerate the shadows of the shapes and give the cover a real 3-D effect that conveyed the feel and texture of felt on glossy printed paper.

This cover redesign departs from the static look (recurring icons with different cover colors) found in previous FamilyGuide covers. We plan to carry stylistic elements of this cover redesign through the rest of the year’s editions of FamilyGuide.


Find the new edition of FamilyGuide for free at select locations around town (omahamagazine.com/locations).

Moroccan Door DIY

March 7, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Costa Rican fine artist Elisa Morera Benn and her husband, Dr. Douglas Benn (a professor in the Creighton School of Dentistry), are patrons of the arts. Their stylish home located near Leavenworth Street features great views of downtown Omaha and a vast array of compelling works of art—a mix of hers and others.

Benn’s surrealistic artworks are also showcased around town at places like the Artists’ Cooperative Gallery, the Jewish Community Center, and Hot Shops Art Center. Benn—whose work has been featured at the Louvre in Paris—studied with art masters in Costa Rica and has been a professional artist for over 35 years. A popular theme of her work is children and women who have overcome obstacles.

Just off Benn’s home art studio in the basement, however, is a guest room that features a fully functional and wholly different type of art. Benn transformed the back of an ordinary bookshelf into a pleasing, extraordinary work of art—a portal, if you wish, to other lands.

The bookshelf divided the guest room that also includes a small office area. So, Benn painted the back into the style of a mythical Moroccan door to transform it into an “attractive, surrealistic gateway for the guest.” Her inspiration? The royal arches and neon lights of Morocco. “I love the Morocco style. I have never been in this country, but it is on my bucket list,” she says. 

The project took her about three days and cost less than $75. She was inspired to create the door after finding the Moroccan handles on sale at a craft store. Her array of tools also included acrylic paint, masking tape, dimensional texture acrylic paint, some chalk, glass tiles, flat and clear glass gems, flat and round metal pieces, and a ruler. 

She first Googled examples of Moroccan doors, then she chose her favorite model. “I transferred the design to the back of the bookcase, measured it with a ruler, and then marked it with chalk.” She then put masking tape around the border to prepare for painting. She used Moroccan blue, brown, white, and black. After painting with the plain colors, Benn used a dimensional fabric paint for clothes called “Tulip Slip Black” to paint the flowers and symbols. “This gives you an acrylic texture,” she says.

Benn then finished by adding the handles, round metal, flat and clear glass gems, and glass tiles. “The glass gives you the sensation of looking at a wall with a nice Moroccan door.”

Through her handiwork, Benn created a passageway that often surprises and delights visitors to the Benns’ home. The creative door serves as a continual reminder of her wish to travel to Morocco one day and gives her guests something nice to look at. “As an artist, I love the intervention of making artistic things with normal pieces. Blending new things with old things is part of my inspiration.”

Items used:

  • Free-standing bookcase
  • Moroccan handles
  • Acrylic paint: Moroccan blue, brown, white, and black
  • Dimensional fabric paint (Tulip Slip Black)
  • Ruler
  • Masking tape
  • Chalk (two pieces)
  • Pieces of flat, round metal (approximately 16) the size of a nickel
  • Flat, clear glass gems (approximately 26)
  • Glass tiles (1-by-2-inch tiles, approximately 200)

Visit the artist’s website at artistamorera.com for more information.

This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of OmahaHome.

35 Years Of Omaha Magazine Covers

March 1, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Illustration by Matt Wieczorek

Omaha Magazine publisher Todd Lemke fondly remembers several magazine covers from his 35 years in the local magazine business. But he is particularly fond of the November/December 1993 issue—a poster of which hangs on his office wall. The cover features a beautiful model wearing a Russian fur hat and coat. The lead story? “Revelations on Russia.”

Here’s the behind-the-scenes scoop: Lemke and the author of the cover story, Sandy Stahlstein, had traveled to Russia over the summer. While abroad in the land of “czars, caviar, and communism,” Lemke had proposed to the writer. And she said, “Yes.”

For many years, covers of Omaha Magazine featured one person’s portrait. Often it was someone whom the public could easily identify and read about in the magazine’s inside pages. Five years ago, the 30th anniversary issue changed that idea like a light bulb popping over Lemke’s head.

“I was talked into being the cover subject by Bill Sitzmann, who told me that readers want to know the faces behind the names in business, and that includes our business,” Lemke says.

That was one of the first conceptual covers of Omaha Magazine. Lemke liked the idea so much, he and the creative team began creating unique covers for subsequent publications. 

As lead photographer, Sitzmann saw concept covers as a way to stand out from the crowd, also noting that his skill set suited him to the work. The covers have won awards, inspired and intrigued the viewer, and brought an unparalleled feel to the publication.

“The cover that has won the most awards was the black-on-black cover with the spot gloss on it,” Lemke says of 2014’s Best of Omaha issue. The spot gloss varnish meant that while nearly the entire cover was black, there were words on the cover that were glossy while the majority of the cover was matte. “You had to move the cover around under a light source to see the words, but the cover really engaged the reader.”

Conceptual covers also enable Omaha Magazine to feature Omaha stars in uncommon ways. One of Sitzmann’s favorite covers is the July/August 2014 issue featuring Chuck Hagel.

“I got that done in two days,” Sitzmann says. “I flew to New York and drove straight to D.C. with all my gear. I shot at the Pentagon, spent the night at a friend’s house in New York, and flew back to Omaha the next day.”

He also enjoyed shooting the July/August 2015 cover with Keystone Pipeline activist Jane Kleeb holding a black snake and covered in chocolate syrup to emulate oil.

“She was all in,” Sitzmann says. “I gave her the snake idea, and she went for it.”

Other favorite conceptual covers include Mayor Jean Stothert on the September/October 2013 issue featuring the headline “Leading in a Man’s World” (with her head Photoshopped above a man’s hairy arms) and the September/October 2017 issue’s double cover on indigenous language revitalization (tribal elders translated text into the Omaha, or Umoⁿhoⁿ, language for the front with equivalent English text on the inside).

Bringing together these covers involves strategic meetings of the minds of everyone on the creative and editorial team.

“I am proud that each cover is a team approach between edit, photography, and graphics as to the selection and the composition of the design,” Lemke says. “Not everyone agrees all the time, but we are able to respect one another’s opinions, and I think most people walk away from the table saying, ‘Yes, that will work.’”

See the magazine’s current staff at http://omahamagazine.com/articles/35-years-on-staff/

Read Omaha Magazine at omahamagazine.com. Subscribe to support community journalism. 

November/December 1993

March/April 2013

September/October 2013

Best of Omaha, 2014

July/August 2014

July/August 2015

September/October 2016

This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Christy Chan

February 22, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This is the first in a series on artists in residency at The Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts.

Christy Chan was at the tail end of her residency when we spoke; it started Sept. 20 and ended Nov. 17. The theme was Art, Empathy, and Ethos. The artist and storyteller is now back home in Oakland, California.

Christy Chan says she enjoys the view from her room at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, even though it faces the train tracks downtown.

“I actually really like it,” she says. “I think trains are romantic.”

Chan lived at the Bemis for two months in the fall while doing a residency there. She is an interdisciplinary artist who enjoys telling stories through video, audio, performance, and installations. The Bemis residency offers her a chance to work on her latest project and to do all the things she doesn’t necessarily get to focus on at home. Perhaps most importantly, it provides her a unique experience.

“I was really intrigued to come here, because I’ve lived on two coasts, I’ve lived abroad, but I’ve seen more of other countries than I have of this country,” she says.

Aside from her general curiosity, Chan says she also felt that living in a time when politics are so polarizing, it was important to see more of the country.

“Because I do work about class and race and power, specifically in the United States, it’s important that I see more of it…I think it’s easy for different groups of people, different areas of the U.S., to be ‘cartoonized,’” she says, adding that this is something that happens all over the world and is not unique to this country.

She was familiar with the Bemis residency program and even applied four years ago. This time around, she applied because the themes seemed like a perfect fit.

Chan’s experience with the themed residency exemplifies the goal of the program. She says she enjoys meeting all the artists. The fact that the theme is empathy and they all lay claim to that attachment in their work gave them a lot to talk about.

Chan says a residency gives her the opportunity to step out of the day-to-day routine of her nine-to-five job as a freelance film producer. “The thing I love about residencies is going somewhere and having a natural response to the environment and stumbling onto things that I become curious about,” she says. “I think that really feeds my work.”

Though she’s working on multiple projects at the Bemis, she is developing a project called “Everybody Eats Lunch.”

“I guess most artists would call it a social practice project, to use fancy words, but I just call it a community art project.”

Chan’s parents were Chinese immigrants who owned a Chinese restaurant in her hometown in Virginia. She says she grew up seeing how coming together for a meal breaks down walls. “It just does,” she says. “Gathering and eating and talking is just part of our human nature.”

She says the plan is to have the project open to anyone and everyone who wants to participate.

Chan launched the project here, when she met with two Omahans. She also has friends in Oakland and New York who are participating, but hopes to see it spread far beyond that. “Right now, it’s sort of unfolding in this organic way,” she says.

For her two lunches here, she says Block 16 agreed to sponsor them. Come spring, there will be an official website where people can view those lunches and more.

She says the idea is to record the lunch conversation, and, if you’re comfortable doing so, taking a picture with each other. If not, she suggests taking a picture of the food you’re eating together. “No matter who we are or where we come from,” Chan says, “we all come together over food and conversation and that’s something we all share.”

“I really want to give people some freedom,” Chan says, “because it’s not about how good a photographer you are…it should be as easy as recording it on your phone. And the pictures don’t have to be great.” She says the idea is to collectively create a larger conversation that people will listen to, with one conversation leading to another.

“The premise of it is coming from the fact that we keep hearing that we live in this polarized time, how we’re all in these echo chambers,” Chan says, “not just because of digital media, but because we are on digital media all the time. That in itself is its own echo chamber.”

Chan says in an ideal world, you would be able to meet and talk to anyone, or just go deeper in a conversation with someone you already know.

“Politically, conversations are very polarized. I think there’s truth to that,” she says. “The idea of it is just to have lunch with somebody you wouldn’t normally have a conversation with, someone you consider a stranger and, for whatever reason, they at first seem too different from you, you haven’t had a connection…my intention is to give people an excuse to notice who’s around them and feel more connected to the people around them. It might be that someone has different political views or values. I think that will be interesting to see how these lunches go.”

She adds, “As all these really heated, political things are happening, it might feel good to be connecting in a way that’s just one-on-one.”

Chan says that for her, the project has made her think about all the people she sees everywhere, every day, who she hasn’t had a conversation with. “Everyone has a story,” she says, “everybody has something interesting about their life.”

“A lot of my work is really about humanizing who people are, sort of stripping away the easy categories—age, race, gender, sexuality, and just humanizing who we are,” she says. “So, I was really excited to come here.”

Chan says she’s been driving around Nebraska, even heading into South Dakota, looking at different points of interest. She finds homesteads particularly fascinating, and even planned a trip to Homestead National Monument of America near Beatrice.

“I don’t know when I’ll be back here again, so I want to see everything,” she says. “It’s been a really great place to do research and just feel inspired.”

As a storyteller, she says seeing the pioneer history and how that story was told interested her because a lot of her work revolves around that—storytelling and looking at the ways stories are scripted into our culture, whether they’re right or wrong. “A lot of my work is about using stories to subvert stories, or to create a fuller picture.”

Chan says that as she’s been exploring, she’s been making video and audio recordings. She has also read and reread a lot of books written about and set in the Midwest, from graphic novels, to autobiographies of Native Americans who were forced to go to boarding schools and assimilate, and even the Little House on the Prairie books.

“It’s felt really special to be here and see where a lot of things have happened in history.”

Chan says it’s important to look at things with a critical eye, as far as what are the narratives being told.

“Something that really blew my mind once I got out here and I was looking at where everything was, was realizing that where the Little House on the Prairie books, where those stories were set, were right next to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and that essentially those two stories are related,” she says. She finds it interesting how those two narratives
are represented.

While she obviously made that connection before, she says she felt it in a much more visceral way when she saw the land, adding that it’s different to be able to read the book and then drive over to see the site.

“The fact that we have, not just the Little House books, but other books that create this narrative of what we think our history is,” she says, “but there’s this other narrative that’s also completely true, and they coexist together…
it’s complex.”

Besides traveling around Nebraska to get a sense of what this part of the country looks like, she’s also been visiting art museums and galleries to see how stories are represented there.

“I feel like sometimes seeds get planted while in residency, and then later on, they take form. I feel that might happen here as well,” she says. “When I’m in a new place and something’s pulling me to look at it, I just kind of try to trust that feeling…and go with it.” 

All About the Residency

Holly Kranker is the residency project manager at the Bemis Center and has been with the program since 2013. She says themed residencies (like this year’s: Art, Empathy, and Ethos) are somewhat new to Bemis. This year marks the third one.

Kranker says two years ago, they started residency schedules, with the artists arriving and leaving at the same time, in a three-month block. In the past, the Bemis would have artists coming and going frequently, Kranker says, so they wanted to create more of a cohort.

Kranker says they wanted the residents to have a richer experience with the other artists they were meeting, “so it would be more fulfilling and give them a chance to really get to know each other.” She says residency blocks usually run from January to April, and May to August, with themed residencies developed by their artistic director lasting just two months—from September until November.

Previous themes were Future of Food, Sci-fi, and the Human Condition. For now, the future of the thematic residencies is unknown. However, their regular residencies will continue.

Kranker describes the process of getting a residency as a two-panel process, with three panelists each. The first panel is given criteria to look for, including whether it’s contemporary, consistent, aesthetic, and whether the artist has a true command and understanding of the work they’re doing.

During the second wave, they tally up the first panel reviews and the top-scoring applicants move on. She says the top applicants end up being roughly 20 percent of the pool.

“For a full residency year, we generally receive around 1,000 to 1,100 applications. Of those, we’re able to place roughly 36 artists in the residency per calendar year.” This is about 3 to 4 percent of the total pool.

Unfortunately, Kranker says they won’t have a thematic residency for 2018. However, that’s not to say they won’t ever have them again.

“Residencies are a living, breathing thing and we’re always evaluating and being responsive to what artists needs are in contemporary art.” 

Visit christychan.com to learn more about the artist. To learn more about the project, go here everybodyeatsclunch.com.

Visit bemiscenter.org to find out more about the residency program.

This article appears in the January/February 2018 edition of The Encounter.

 

 

Free Space

February 11, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Eli Rigatuso has a knack for uncovering beauty. He has been known to stop his car to investigate a particularly exceptional flower in somebody’s yard. He is a man who happily recounts being stopped in his tracks by an unexpected patch of wildflowers blooming through the underbrush.

This devotion to the smallest of details in life has characterized Rigatuso’s unique vision from a young age. “I was always fascinated by trying to capture little things,” he says of his earliest explorations of visual art as an 8-year-old with a camera. Prints of close-up photos of the wonders of everyday life, as seen through his personal lens, stacked up as he developed an artistic eye for the unexpected.

Walking into Rigatuso’s North Omaha home is like encountering a surprising glimpse of a lilac decorating your route to work. Now a professional photographer and videographer, his affinity for finding the unexpected extends to his growing collection of works from local artists.

Rigatuso welcomes visitors on a guided exploration of his 21-piece collection. “I’ve had people walk in here who have said the energy in this place is unbelievable,” he says, gesturing to the massive, awe-inspiring painting of a young man with soulful eyes that greets guests. Equally impressive is the drag queen painted on a plastic shower door that divides the living room and kitchen. Next to that are the elegant photos of the annual Metropolitan Community College Intertribal Powwow. The entire collection radiates a peaceful energy that’s undeniable.

Perhaps that energy is a hopefulness—a sense of truthfulness that can only be communicated through the work of local artists. Rigatuso uncovers art everywhere, and throughout his tour, he reiterates that his collection is defined by the profound story behind each piece. His voice trembles as he recounts the moment he first encountered the centerpiece of his collection—the young man with the soulful eyes. “It just literally took my breath away. The moment I saw it, I started crying.” He later learned the subject of the painting was a friend of the artist’s who had died of AIDS.

The artist, John Muñoz, was happy to negotiate with Rigatuso to ensure the work would be displayed in a home where it would be appreciated. When Rigatuso unrolled the painting after purchasing it, he was surprised to discover a second painting in the bundle. “I felt like it belonged to you, too,” explained the artist. Now hanging next to the young man in the living room, the painting is a complementary representation of a mother nurturing her children. It turns out, the paintings are both done on repurposed canvas posters from Muñoz’s day job at Whole Foods.

Many of Rigatuso’s pieces showcase repurposed materials. The collection also contains art done on particle board, a cabinet door, rescued pieces of discarded plastic, and sheet music. The artists run the gamut—a local coffee-shop owner, students, DJs, and everything in between. Each tells a unique story.

Another central piece to the collection features a mysterious woman in shades of blue hanging in the bedroom. It was painted by a stylist who cut Rigatuso’s hair on a day he spent celebrating his trans identity. On the mantle rests a painting of a fiery girl. It was purchased from a 20-year-old he happened to follow on social media. There is even photography from Rob Gilmer, owner of Council Bluffs’ famous home-cooking hot spot, Dixie Quicks.

Rigatuso’s diverse collection has got people talking. He has witnessed his home transform into a museum of Omaha artwork. “Everybody knows that I’ve got a lot of cool art. It’s kind of become a thing.”

But the private museum is about much more than buying art; it’s about cultivating community. “I want people to be encouraged by the fact that people see what they do as something that they want to own.” Rigatuso says. The real goal is “to be able to create an environment for people to come
and be a part of.”

This desire to create a welcoming space for all types of artists comes from a place of love rooted in Rigatuso’s own experience. “I’ve had an extraordinary life,” he declares with a laugh. “For the first 50 years of my life, I was something that the rest of the world could accept, and I was dying inside. And when I came out as trans, I feel like I set myself free.”

By creating a space where even beginning artists can feel their vulnerability is welcomed, Rigatuso hopes to free them of any doubts about the value of their creativity. “I really think that when you’re engaged in art, we’re engaging a part of ourselves that is true vulnerability,” he says. “When you paint or you photograph or you capture something and you have the courage to share it, you’re actually sharing a piece of yourself. And that to me is huge.”

As his collection grows, Rigatuso says he hopes to curate an art show next spring or summer. “If anything, I want to leave a legacy of art.”

Visit elirigatuso.me to find out more. 

This article was printed in the January/February 2018 edition of Encounter.